I Ate the Devil

 

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Lexie Braverman as Penny, and Kelindah Schuster as Mia, the Artificially Intelligent Sex Doll

Reviewed by Gregor Collins

Even in the anxiety-soaked days when I leave my Hell’s Kitchen studio with the TV blaring on a news channel so that I can feel like I’m returning home to the distant drone of congenial roommates—there are days, like this evening, that I feel loved.

And who would have thunk it, an artificially intelligent sex doll named Mia is what loved me.

Plopping down in my seat at 7:55pm in time to catch five minutes of spontaneously fainting goats (apparently it’s a thing) playing on the giant video screen as the show-before-the-show, I felt a little “off kilter,” and when in those first few moments staring at a stage waiting for a show to begin I find myself feeling “off kilter”, it’s usually a sign I’m destined to leave the theater still thinking about it.

My instincts were right.

One hundred minutes later, I did something I haven’t done since seeing 1984 on Broadway—I cried. Okay, I was about to. It was coming. My eyes were filling up like Ed Harris’s helmet in the movie The Abyss. And I fought that flood off like anyone would do who remembered they sat in front and had to turn around and face those people like a man who would NEVER cry at a comedy, no matter how dark it was.

Directed by Nick Flint and written by Nadja Leonhard-Hooper and Dan Nuxoll, Eat The Devil is a new play set in a dystopian, media-crazed near-future, where a mysterious virus is infecting the nation. As viciously competitive media pundits battle to control the narrative, it’s the artificially intelligent sex doll Mia—the alpha and the omega of the story—who most captivates our imagination.

And not because she’s every guy’s (and girl’s) dream, even though she is—she’s like Scarlet Johansson from the movie Her if she were in human form—and not because we want to get naked with her, even though we definitely want to—but because the wonderful actor who plays her—Kelindah Schuster—keeps us on edge about what’s really going on under that facade only Michelangelo could have constructed. Is she good? Is she evil? Does she love me? Does she want to kill me? One minute she’s a kind-hearted, skin-coated computer taking direction from her creator Penny (Lexie Braverman), and the next minute she’s belting out a spot-on impression of a porn actor being pleasured, all done with a meek authenticity that makes us feel like the world ending isn’t so shitty after all.

Every audience member in that theater, including me, wanted Mia, or the actor—I’m not sure which—to walk up to each one of us and whisper: “I love you.” But since it wasn’t going to happen, we all stuck around hoping it would. And in the meantime we were treated to an immensely talented ensemble-cast-of-8, every one of them dripping with charisma, whose sterling comedic timing and impeccable elocution of dense dialogue, was nothing shy of dazzling. If there was a weak actor in the bunch, I would have singled them out. But there wasn’t. Please Google them all and cast them in your dramatic comedy show.

Eat the Devil packs a poignancy punch under what you might initially have written off as mere absurdist comedy belonging on the final-sketch-of-the-evening on Saturday Night Live. But no, there’s something way deeper going on here.

We’re given multiple delightfully disjointed narratives that mirror our daily lives, including Nathaniel Kent as real-life Conspiracy Theorist Alex Jones, Jenna Rubaii as real-life Conservative Commentator Tomi Lahren, Kev Berry and Emily Via as two nutso flight attendants for Red Tube Airlines (Red Tube being the largest porn hub on the web—a friend told me this), Ben Fine as the hilarious, raspy-voiced pilot who turns out to be, well, I don’t want to spoil it, Rory Spillane (a more talented version of Michael Cera) as an eremitic adolescent who orders a sex doll (Mia) and gets to unbox her and have sex with her before he plans on killing himself for being so romantically misunderstood.

And while these characters, or the actors playing them, could have been reduced to hollow caricatures going for cheap laughs, there were traces of profundity, of raw emotion, in every manic portrayal. The real beauty of the show is that in the throes of folly, the genuine moments of connection, of angst, of loss, and of love, keep us truly grateful for Off-Off Broadway theater at its delicious-est.

And for a show with a picayune budget, what they squeezed out of the production value is worth mentioning, the video, sound, lighting, scenic and costume designs (Scott Fetterman, Brendan Aanes, David Shocket, James Hunting, Kenisha Kelly) were characters as salient as the actors themselves. And Flint’s use of the video throughout the evening was masterful, seamlessly cutting from stage to screen, adding to the mounting pangs of dramatic tension.

But back to Mia. Oh, Mia. Yes, I fell in love with her. My love for her, though, had nothing really to do with why I left the theater feeling like Ed Harris’s helmet. It was what she imparted to us in a dead-silent theater at the very end of the show:

“And so, when all we see is darkness, and all we feel is our stomach falling, and we think: is this all going to go okay? Are we going to be okay? Just remember that it’s me flying the plane. And that I’m taking us home.”

After an entire evening spent trying to make us roar with laughter and join in on the impish insanity of it all, it was a sex doll named Mia who seductively whispered us into experiencing calm, into knowing we’re safe, and into feeling loved. And at this, every single audience member collectively thought: Maybe I will be okay.

One Year Lease Theater Company presents Eat the Devil at The Tank (312 West 36th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues), February 21-March 9, 2019.

Tickets: https://eatthedevil.brownpapertickets.com/

“Into the Woods” Enters “Into the Goods”

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Shuyan Yang & Julia Goretsky. Photo credit: John Robert Hoffman

Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan

So a lot of the theater community has a “thing” about traveling out of Manhattan to see shows. I never understood why. But when you go see a Theater 2020 production in downtown Brooklyn, you’ll soon see that it is your loss to have such a limited mentality. I made the trek, which isn’t bad at all. It only took me 30 minutes from the Upper East side to get there and it was well worth it; their current production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods is quite good. I had my doubts because I loved the movie so much, but their clever interpretation of this musical shines bright.

What I love about this mixed-up world where characters from many different fairy tales collide is that it makes you think everyone’s going to live happily ever after at the end of act one. But act two reveals that appearances can be deceiving. When a giant threatens to kill everyone in an act of revenge, the characters’ true colors stand out and it becomes an introspective look at humanity, as twists and turns reveal our flaws and that everybody has a weakness for someone or something. We discover that this applies to us as a society and as individuals.

Sondheim’s music allows us to be thoroughly entertained and we do not immediately realize that we are actually not as different from the fairy tale characters as we may have thought. It isn’t until the end of the show that we truly understand that we have just witnessed the darker side of people, and what’s scarier is that we can see those traits in ourselves. The best type of education happens when you do not realize you are being taught something until after it has happened. This musical does just that, revealing startling truths about our humanness.

For the most part, director David Fuller has assembled a superb cast whose vocal chops are up there with Broadway level singers. For instance, the witch, played wonderfully by Julia Goretsky, steals the show. This was the role I thought Fuller was going to be the hardest to successfully fill after Meryl Streep and Bernadette Peters had played this iconic character and gave stunning performances in their own right. The role must have seemed like an overwhelming task for Goretsky but you would never know, for her acting skills are stellar and her voice touches us with every note she sings. She proves that she can hold her own with the best of them by exceeding expectations, and delivering a top-notch performance. Also praiseworthy is John Jeffords, whose sincerity as Rapunzel’s Prince strikes a chord. Jeffords has received performance-based accolades before, and from watching his mastery skills in action, one can see why, as he commands our attention by giving a genuine portrayal of a conflicted prince.

My only quibbles, with the otherwise fabulous cast, is Alexander Coopersmith, who plays Cinderella’s conceited prince. It feels as if he is playing a caricature of the prince, instead of actually inhabiting the role as his counterpart Jeffords does. This is a shame for Coopersmith, who has a fantastic voice but delivers a performance that feels forced. Jeffords and Coopersmith, the two princes, need to complement each other, but as it stands, the duo is in completely out of step with each other. Their juxtaposition is jarring  and makes it seem as if they are in different worlds. Also, Tomo Watanabe, although cute and charming, has a voice that is not quite on par with the rest of the cast.

Yet, the good outweighs the bad. The costumes, designed by Matthew Lott, are minimalist, but here, less is clearly more for they are magically innovative. Many cast members play multiple roles, and Lott’s use of basic accessories allow us to never be confused about who’s playing who. For instance, the prince’s double as Cinderella’s wicked step sisters, and the men just add on a basic blue sash when playing the sisters. Sometimes the sisters and the princes are in the same scene together and the use of this mere piece of fabric provides a crystal clear indicator of which role the men are playing. The costume pieces allow the characters to seamlessly go from one character to the next, without necessitating any need for elaborate and unnecessary costume changes, which keeps the momentum of the show going.

This is the second production I have seen by Theater2020 and, in my opinion, they have hit two home runs. So, is there good theater outside of Manhattan? Theater 2020 answers this question with an astounding yes. Professional level theater CAN and DOES exist in Brooklyn.

Into the Woods plays now through March 17, 2019 at 180 Remsen St. Saint. Francis College. http://www.theater2020.com

Random Acts is a Little too Random

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Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan

Everyone has their own story worth sharing, right? After all, theater in its purest form is storytelling. In Random Acts, Renata Hinrichs shares her personal narrative of growing up under the roof of a Lutheran Minister who is an active advocate for equality during the Civil Rights Movement. Unfortunately, she lives on the border line between whites and blacks in Chicago, which puts her and her family in harm’s way on more than one occasion.

Hinrichs is raised in an accepting household and does not understand discrimination and segregation. Much of her story focuses on her childhood where she learns about the harsh reality of her times, especially the horrific day of Martin Luther King’s assassination. She portrays her mother, father, and other community members, giving us a holistic view of her childhood. Most of her story stays in this time period and is largely effective. We are genuinely moved several times by her childhood anecdotes.

By and large, I do not enjoy one-person shows, as I have trouble listening to a singular voice for an extended amount of time. To Hinrichs’ credit, I remained engaged for most of the show. Yet, Hinrichs seems to be too aware of the potentiality to lose her audience if she remains physically and vocally stagnant for long stretches of time. Therefore, she and her director, Jessi O Hill, over-compensate for this risk by having her move around the stage excessively. While it is true that movement can be effective in keeping the momentum of a piece going and the audience engaged, it is also true that excessive physical action can detract from the power that derives from planting yourself in front of an audience and compelling them to just simply listen to your story. There is power in stillness and I wish Hinrichs would trust that she is “enough” and doesn’t need to fill her performance with extraneous movement that appears unmotivated and contrived. Good lighting and sound design can enhance the mood of a scene by effectively creating emotional depth when used judiciously, but here, again, it seems to be too much. Sometimes less is more, and Hinrichs is strong enough by herself and doesn’t need to rely on bells and whistles to keep us engaged.

The unfolding of the story feels awkward. Hinnrichs opens the play by sharing her memory of having an interracial teenage relationship when such things were seen as “taboo”. But then it abruptly switches gears and delves straight into her childhood, where she spends the majority of her 75-minute play. When she finally returns to the opening memory, it has lost much of its emotional impact, as too much time has elapsed and too many other events have occurred between the beginning and the end of the play. Sadly, this makes it come off as a convention rather than a tightly woven narrative account.

While introducing new devices and themes can be a strong choice for maintaining audience engagement, Hinrichs’ decisions to use music (some of which she sings, some of which she lip-syncs) seems like a writer trying to be clever rather than a dynamic way to move the story along, which is what I think Hinrichs’ real intention is. Sadly for her it doesn’t quite work, adding another layer that falls flat rather than enhancing the audiences experience. For example, Hinrichs lip-sync’s to Julie Andrews’ Sound of Music, and while she is conveying that Andrews was a childhood idol of hers, It goes on too long and doesn’t enhance the overall impact of the story. It’s a “cutesy” moment that detracts from the through line and the power of the piece.

Yet, all this aside, there is power that comes from claiming ones story and owning it. When Hinrichs does this, there are moments where we are in the palm of her hand and are glad to be there. Hinrichs needs to trust in her storytelling prowess, strip it down, and then just “stand and deliver”. When she lets the story unfold simply, without cluttering it with unmotivated sound and movement, the beauty and profundity of her story is felt perfectly. Her story is compelling and can hold its own without needing all the “extras” that are being forced into it. Hinrichs perspective growing up as a white child in a heavily segregated community in Chicago is special and deserves to be told. We are able to walk alongside her and experience things as she did. That alone makes this a gripping piece of theater. Hinrichs is likeable and genuine, which are assets to the honest strength of this her story. It’s already there, Hinrichs and her director just need to get out of the way and let it shine without pressured interference.

Random Acts plays now through March 2, 2019 at TBG Mainstage Theater 312 W.36th St. web.ovationtix.com/trs/pe.c/10345959

God Shows Up. But does He Really?

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Dr. Rehan (Christopher Sutton) rousing his parishioners

Reviewed By Jara Jones

What happens when a prosperous interfaith televangelist receives a mysterious letter and invites God as a guest on his television show? Will stark, unsettling confessions be revealed? With a man like Dr. Thomas Isaac Rehan, what drives him to embrace the possibility of an unknown man to perhaps be the Lord made corporeal? How will this satire of prosperity theology (the belief that faith is made tangible through financial contributions) upend our beliefs?

It appears this play was commissioned with the intent that this “controversial, funny, and philosophical” work would result in “shouting matches to begin after performances”. Unfortunately, the work falls flat in attempting to be risky, to be a source of unexpected humor, or to emerge as a nascent topic for discussion. The production feels like a period piece in retrospect; it would be a daring, satirical production forty or fifty years ago. For example, Charles Farah Jr’s rebuttal to the actions of his former employer, Oral Roberts, in the influential book FROM THE PINNACLE OF THE TEMPLE– (written in 1979!) was considered a landmark tome at this time, being brave enough to give breath to the potential impurity of televangelism.

For those still reading, I want you to go and find yourself a chair right now, because what I’m about to say may cause you to lose your bearing and collapse in awe. Did you know that televangelists “may” not be the most altruistic people? Did you know that many of them pocket the money their parish gives them, spending the bulk of it on gaudy displays of wealth? Also, (and if you have a monocle, now’s the time to remove it before you become so shocked that it falls right into your steaming cup of tea) Did you know that the Bible may not be the direct word of God, but perhaps manipulated and padded over millennia by a host of self-serving men?

I know, right?

In this production, Iacovelli’s set is perfectly rendered to capture the drab earth tones of a 70’s era religious broadcasting set. Maggie Bofill as Roberta is utterly wasted. There’s so much more that could have been fleshed out for this character, the poor soul who does Dr. Rehan’s makeup and fetches his food, and yet also serves as his devoted stage manager. Why does she choose to do so much for him? Why does Dr. Rehan allow her to shoulder so many duties? How does witnessing her creator affect her? She’s little more than a prop whose suffering exists to make Dr. Rehan look even more spiritually corrupt.

There are few revelations and surprises. The internal logic of the play refuses to adhere by its own rules. Why can God in one moment claim they have no control over the weather or human nature, but then be able to wield power enough to paralyze Dr. Rehan and force him to quote scripture for their petty entertainment? Why is the choice made to make Dr. Rehan Satan disguised on Earth (rather than just a mortal descended from God’s original blueprint? Wouldn’t that make for a stronger, more complex assessment of brutal humanity confronted by their Creator?) Would the Devil be so reckless to invite his greatest foe on live television to reveal his secret and usurp his power over God’s ignored works? And since he’s the Devil, why would God’s discourse on a more altruistic and hands-off approach to his creations surprise and astonish him? He’s known God’s true mind , God’s definitive opinions since the world was made. Theses questions leave us baffled and detract from the impact of the play.

Unfortunately, God, played by Lou Liberatore, is disappointing, not due to a lack of talent, that is clear, but due to his inability to memorize his lines. His frequent need to call for line takes us completely out of the world of the play. If the show must really go on, one must wonder why Liberatore did not just simply ad lib until he found his footing and continued on. It’s not like we would have known any better. To be fair, there was a large amount of dialogue for Liberatore to cope with but c’est la vie. One can only hope that this otherwise fine actor will resolve this issue in future performances.

Yet, the show has potential, especially with the stunning performance put forth by Christoher Sutton, who literally speaks for almost ten minutes at the opening and to his credit, we never lose interest. Go to this show to watch Sutton. Get yourself a lesson on how to take any script and squeeze any possible bit of humanity into it. Sutton as Dr. Rehan is so damn charismatic and gentle, with every word he speaks feeling measured and alive. There’s such an earnest lightness to Sutton’s work that for a while the other troubling issues of the production faded into the background. Sutton is alone worth the price of admission.

God Shows Up is produced by Eric Krebs and runs until February 21st at The Playroom Theater (151 West 46th St, 8th Floor)

Tix: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/god-shows-up-tickets-55080869363?aff=erelexpmlt

I Have Just Three Words for Paul Calderon’s MASTER OF THE CROSSROADS: HOLY. FU**ING. SH**.

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Reviewed by Gregor Collins

Normally I feel I owe it to a play to let it marinate overnight before putting fingers to laptop, but it’s nearing midnight and I’m not leaving the light of my MacBookPro until I sweat out some of the intensity I absorbed at the premiere of Master of the Crossroads—the new play at the Bridge Theater written and directed by Obie Winner and character-actor-you’ve-seen-in-almost-everything, Paul Calderon.

Out of all the 93 credits Calderon has listed on IMDB, you probably know him best from his only line in Pulp Fiction—“My name’s Paul and this shit’s between y’all”—a line that I and millions of other 40-year-olds have eternally burrowed in the bellies of our brains.

In the first few moments, as the theater turns black and the sound of discordant jazz music fills the room, you just have that feeling. Set in the ghettos of Baton Rouge, Yolanda (Sarah Kate Jackson) has just stopped by the house of her ex-husband Cornbread (Nixon Cesar), to drop off his medication. There she discovers he has a stranger tied up to a chair at gunpoint, threatening to crucify him. She flees to the house of Cornbread’s estranged brother Jim-Bo (Obi Abili), where the play begins, pleading with him to go over and confront his brother, who is an Iraq War Vet with P.T.S.D.

In the middle of getting dressed to go to church, at first Jim-Bo brushes her off, but it doesn’t take long for Yolanda to rope him into her hysterics to where the guilt proves too much.

The rest of the play is one of the most physically intense hours of theater you’ll ever see. There’s a reason the Playbill warns in bold italics: Please note that this production features nudity, racist language, and graphic violence in a very intimate setting.

At first it’s clear what’s to play out when Jim-Bo arrives at Cornbread’s house: Jim-Bo, the pacifistic, church-going boy with his wits about him, and Cornbread, the crazy loon answering the door buck naked with a shotgun trained at the peep hole. But as each of their pasts scream to the surface, new information rears its ugly head – Jim-Bo also was an Iraq War Vet with severely unresolved P.T.S.D., at times even more unhinged and amplified than his “certifiably insane” brother’s.

Crossroads is the theater experience equivalent of a Rothko painting—you don’t really go to see it for the form or the shape or even the story, you go to have it make you feel something, to take you on a visceral ride. A drama about mental health and who we turn to for help when no one else will, it’s a sit-back-and-be-prepared-not-to-so-much-as-itch-an-itch type of play from beginning to end. At points the broken brothers are going at each other with such impassioned volume, I wondered if they could be heard all the way out on 8th Avenue.

With Sarah Kate Jackson’s jittery Southern drawl that had her bobbing and twitching around the stage like a young Kathryn Hepburn on speed… to Abili’s quiet elegance that turns on a dime… to Cesar’s almost frightening Herculean explosiveness – give them all Tony noms. There, I said it.

MASTER OF THE CROSSROADS runs January 16 – February 9, Wednesday – Saturday at 8pm. The Bridge Theater is located at Shetler Studios, 244 West 54th Street between 7th & 8th Ave.

Tickets are $18 at https://masterofthecrossroads.brownpapertickets.com/

No Loose SKIN Here

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 Reviewed by Jara Jones

What within ourselves can be shed, exposed in its imperfect state? What methods do we employ just to manifest a shell in which we can protect and numb our senses?  Broken Box Mime Theater’s production of SKIN explores these questions through vignettes of wildlife, furtive and frightened love, adolescent innocence, family dynamics, the self-dissatisfaction when making art as well as deconstructions of pop culture.  On the whole, the production succeeds in developing precise, engaging narratives which are both poignant and rife with vulnerable humor.

The bare stage is adorned with vibrant, welcome projections from Jacqueline Reed, rich and atmospheric lighting design by Jamie Roderick, and one hell of an artfully chosen soundtrack.   While the playbill offers further explanations into the nature of each scene, I’d advise you to skip it, wait until after you’ve seen the company do their work. Art should stand up on its own, complete with specificity and a vivid and continuous story.  While pantomime has perhaps one of the hardest roads to travel in order to reach this goal, it’s clear that this company can create detailed works with their disciplined physical prowess.

Withthis in mind, I’ve only got a few nits to pick before I discuss some of the gorgeous, unguarded performances in the show.  The Answers, Fall from Grace, and Love Song don’t have as much focus and impact as their descriptions in the playbill would like you to believe.  [untitled] takes a two-minute idea and stretches it throughout the evening, when we can see the ending coming a mile away.  Lastly, Variable feels like a repetitive school exercise rather than producing new and surprising revelations.

What’s a joy to watch, and why you should absolutely see this production as well as any additional work Broken Box Mime Theater produces, are moments when the company allows a concept or relationship to truly feel heartfelt and absurd.  Boys Syde is a perfect dark comedy. Survival Mode takes its welcome time to weave between what is real and what is desired, and the effect lingers long after the production concludes.  Would You Put a Hat on a Ball of Sunshine… and The 16th Annual Brooklyn Beard Awards audibly made me shake with laughter and warmth.  Coming This Fall is comic brilliance – in fact, I’d watch a whole hour and a half alone of the company doing animal work.  Sunday aches with a smooth, giddy passion.  Hashtag is fantastically directed, flawlessly connected, and just heartbreaking.  Lastly, The Lake and Skin gently nudge at the desire to feel kinship and slowly break out of one’s comfort zone.

I’m grateful that a fiercely talented ensemble company like Broken Box Mime Theater exists.  In a world of artists seeking to peacock and proclaim their singular greatness, BBMT trusts in the work of its group to support and challenge one another.  SKIN is ultimately an evening of the collective prosperity such artists can yield within the rubric of an art-serving company, rather than a performer/creator-based one.

Skin runs until February 3, 2019 at A.R.T/New York (Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre (502 W 53rd St., NY, NY 10019) The production is 90 minutes with no intermission.

https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3917497

The Mortality Machine Resurrects Itself with Great Success

Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan

Have you ever wanted to be a superhero? Or to be thrust in the middle of the action on Game of Thrones, not as a spectator, but as a real character with a real story and importance? If so, then you’ll love The Mortality Machine brought to us by Sinking Ship Creations. This is not ordinary theater! It is a theatrical roller-coaster of experiential drama that immerses you in the world of the play and you and, no one else, can make their own decisions that effect everything. It’s astonishing what the cast and crew accomplishes in the little space they have to work with.

Ok, so after the hype of Sleep No More, I was a little skeptical about this production, but I decided to give it a chance and I am glad I did. Everyone’s journey on this quest begins when you enter the door. You start by entering this dingy hole in the wall apartment looking building and I was hesitant to say the least. But then, (after two very nice men carried down my wheelchair for me) I was given a character. I read it, still wondering why I came out of my warm apartment for this.  But then the magic happened. And it was magic. The doors shut and we forced to play our roles or sit there idly for two and a half hours. I opted to give it a shot and join in. Hey I’m an actor, so why not right? But I quickly learned that you don’t need to be an actor to enjoy the event that unfolds before your eyes and that you partly create for yourself.

This will be a short review, not because Sinking Ships, cast, and crew are not praiseworthy, they are But, out of fairness for you and them, I don’t want to give too much away. Simply go see the “show” and give yourself over to it. It’s unbelievable fun when you allow yourself to surrender to the world they create. I must give my hats off to Kelsey Rondeou and Raphael Svarin who were unbelievably committed to their characters and whom I “chose” to interact with the most. This was a theatrical role playing event that I will not soon forget! Go see it now and don’t judge it until it’s over…things are not what they appear.

The Mortality Machine plays now through Feb 3, 2019 at 59 Canal St. www. themortalitymachine.com